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February 14, 1997 - Issue Index

Digital maps help identify trends
By Renu Sehgal (February 14, 1997)

Ellen Cromley uses digital maps to help to fight Lyme disease, monitor public drinking water and support HIV/AIDS education efforts.

"We have seen a digital revolution in geography," said Cromley, an associate professor of geography. "Instead of using paper maps, we now store and analyze geographic data using computers. Geographic Information Systems has certainly given geographers a powerful tool for collecting information, analyzing it and using it to come to conclusions or make decisions. It is also having an impact in many other research and public policy areas."

Using Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Cromley has worked closely with several sectors of the state Department of Public Health. One of the projects she works on is the Infectious Disease Epidemiology Program, which surveys Lyme disease cases so the state can assist local communities in decreasing the number of new cases of the disease. The program is funded through a three-year grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Cromley creates maps showing particular neighborhoods where the disease has affected residents.

"The maps confirm the idea that people in southeastern Connecticut are mostly exposed to Lyme disease where they live rather than in recreational or other settings," she said. "The maps also have helped entomologists collect and analyze ticks and apply different interventions to control them, including removal of debris and stumps so that ticks wont have a suitable environment."

Tracking diseases

Armed with GIS, Cromley also has contributed to projects examining the distribution of childhood lead poisoning, birth defects, cancer, teen births and AIDS cases. State officials use the information to assess the distribution of health problems in the state and evaluate programs.

The digital maps also help agencies such as the Water Supplies Section of the Department of Public Health manage resources more efficiently. "Well locations, reservoirs, water service companies and all other components of the systems that deliver public drinking water to state residents are currently monitored for the whole state by a few dozen people," Cromley said. "The section is in the process of developing a GIS that will provide current information and produce maps so that engineers and planners can use their time in the field more effectively."

GIS is becoming important in the elementary and secondary curriculum as well. Other University faculty have participated in summer institutes for Connecticut school teachers to train them so they can share the technology with students.

"GIS gives us an important tool to help us understand the world we live in, " Cromley said.

See the data on the MAGIC (Map and Geographic Information Center, University Libraries) Web site.

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